A mummy is a corpse that has been preserved after death and it has not decomposed. It is considered a mummy, and not simply a skeleton, the body that retains a bit of its tissue, such as skin, hair, muscles. This can happen as a natural process, called natural mummification, or as an intentional process, called artificial mummification.
Most of the bodies found in the Catacombs of Palermo were preserved naturally.
The natural mummification is a process of transformation of the body which is based on dehydration: removing the fluids present in the tissues it stops the growth of bacteria and consequently also the process of decay of the body.
And this is the mummification process that the Capuchins perfected after the miraculous discovery of forty-five corpses intact.
Shortly after death, the bodies were placed in a preparation room called the "colatoio", where were removed the internal organs; in their place were added straw or bay leaves, in order to facilitate the process of dehydration.
The bodies were placed in a supine position on grids made of terracotta tubes, so their bodily fluids could drain away and their flesh dessicate. The colatoio, which rappresented the optimal environment for mummification, with drier air and very low humidity, were then shut off for close to a year. After the corpses were exposed to the air, washed with vinegar and dressed, often in clothes of their own choosing, before being inserted in the wall niches.
At the end, the skin took on the consistency of leather and the body was characterized by a reduced weight and general stiffness.
Natural mummification, however, was not the only metod employed by Capuchins for cadaver preservation.
During periods of epidemics, they bathed the bodies in arsenic. The results were mummies surprisingly intact, still nowadays. Is this the method used for the body of Antonio Prestigiacomo standing in the Catacombs within a niche with rose-colored face.
The artificial mummification, also called embalming, is achieved by injection of chemicals.
In the Catacombs of Palermo this process of preservation of the bodies was used only occasionally.
Famous is the case of Rosalia Lombardo, a child of two years died in Palermo in 1920 and embalmed by Dr. Alfredo Salafia, which results are still visible: the serene face, the golden curls that fall on the forehead, the soft and relaxed skin give an incredible feeling of life so as to be considered the "world's most beautiful mummy".